By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Almost one full year after the Seattle School Board voted to create a new STEM (science, technology, engineering, math)-focused elementary in West Seattle, the district has not yet chosen the school’s permanent home – and district leaders indicated tonight that almost a second full year is likely to pass before a decision.
They spoke at a meeting of the PTA for the school that’s officially known as K-5 STEM at Boren – after the Delridge Way building where it’s currently housed – though the school calls itself West Seattle STEM Elementary.
Names and definitions were at the heart of the evening’s tension, too; the district still sees STEM education as a “program,” it was clear from district administrators, which is a big reason why they had nothing concrete to say regarding where the students, staffers, and family who see themselves as a school will be in the future. And the more than 50 people in attendance were warned not to expect any decisions before fall, meaning that another round of families choosing K-5 STEM will be making a leap of faith without knowing where their children might be educated a few years down the line.
More than 50 people attended the meeting, originally billed as featuring Southwest Region Executive Director of Schools Carmela Dellino and School Board member Marty McLaren, but also fronted by two district administrators who joined them – Assistant Superintendent of Operations Pegi McEvoy and Executive Director of K-12 Operations Phil Brockman.
“We’re not going to have any absolute concrete answers,” Dellino warned, before handing over the microphone to McEvoy, who began by musing: “When we originally started talking about this a couple years ago – would a STEM elementary even fly? – (but) this has been an amazing response … we weren’t sure whether we were going to end up with a program of 30, or (more) … We thought you were a program, then a program at a school .. where are all these programs that we feel are important going to land at the buildings we have throughout the district? It’s not just about STEM, but about Advanced Learning, and Language Immersion (etc.), and we have to have a conversation about all these programs.”
She said that “conversation” about placement of “programs” districtwide will begin in spring, with Brockman “leading those conversations with the school board” before the community gets involved. She acknowledged “we have a vocal community here who wants to keep this (group) together and keep it together as an elementary school. … If we do it here, how do we have equity of access throughout the district, what does that look like to us?”
And, how would it affect the buildings, how would they do boundary adjustments? she continued to ask, going on about the district’s challenges. “The boundary discussions will be after the program-placement discussions in late spring.”
“If everybody was hoping we could give you an answer tonight – we can give you an update of where we are in the process …” but that process wouldn’t end until November.
Brockman then took the mike, noting he had worked at Boren for two years while principal of West Seattle High School, which was temporarily housed there during its renovations: “I like what you’ve done with the place.”
At a board work session in September, Brockman was the first district official we heard using the term “program” for West Seattle STEM, as reported here; we were pointed to him that night while pursuing the same question – where will the new school eventually land?
Tonight, Brockman mentioned policies need to be merged “to come up with a decisionmaking model about how we place programs and services equitably across the district. … We’re moving forward, slow, but we want to get it right.” He committed to a meeting here about the “STEM program and elements that revolve around that, do you want to be an option school, a neighborhood school … bring it back to the district and (the school board).”
McLaren, who represents West Seattle and South Park on the board, then spoke: “As far as the questions you all have … first it depends on passing (the district’s Building Excellence) levy (next month) …then we can have discussions about program placement … We are looking at you to create a model for the district.” She lauded the parents for their commitment and imagination.
Heidi Alessi – one of the PTA’s co-presidents, with Robin Graham – then asked for questions:
The first to speak was a man who said, “I signed my son up for a school, not a program.” Applause followed. “Where could a school this size fit … what’s the list?” he asked.
“I’m going to make a big assumption that you want to stay in West Seattle,” McEvoy replied, drawing more applause. “… without portables, also? … We would like to right-size every school community so we aren’t putting them in portables (for homerooms). Most schools in West Seattle are small,” she continued, mentioning that Schmitz Park would be moving out of a small building if/when the new BEX IV-funded replacement is built on Genesee Hill. “It depends on how big you are going to be … two classes (per grade)? … what would be ideal for you? … We have Schmitz Park that will be opening up … Hughes is going to be opening up but not until 2015, because the lease is going to be ending there … We are building the new Arbor Heights … which is going to be a very large neighborhood school …”
She forgot Fairmount Park – currently being renovated and expanded for a move-in date of fall 2014, seven years after it was closed – until prompted. “We are doing some remodeling there … all of those options depend on whether they’re going to be neighborhood schools or option schools, and what does this community feel like … Let’s say we dedicated Fairmount Park as a neighborhood school,” she said, going through how a neighborhood school works.
Alessi noted that she had never been told when “sold” on STEM that there was a chance there might not be a West Seattle school building for this group: “We were sold a school, now you’re calling it a program, it might be a neighborhood school … It’s not what we were sold.” That too drew applause.
McLaren tried to clarify that designating Fairmount Park a neighborhood school for its reopening would be “an entirely different issue from where (STEM) would be placed. …Presumably (if that happened) we would put STEM at a different location,” as an option school with a tiebreaker “geo-zone.” She summarized, “I hope I’m making it clear that there’s no intention at all of placing this school in a neighborhood school that would automatically kick some of you out” (because of residency).
McEvoy then revealed that “I was originally thinking that Fairmount Park would be absolutely ideal (for K-5 STEM), it’s in the absolute center of the area, north and south families could get there … Then we started looking at some of our enrollment numbers and where we were having overenrollment in some of our areas, and as some of you are aware, West Seattle Elementary has been growing and growing and growing …” and that, she said, with some boundary adjustments, led to the perception that Fairmount Park would be better as a neighborhood school.
Brockman returned to the topic of the board-adopted racial equity and access policy, so “whatever decision we are making, we have to put that at the center of our decisionmaking.”
The next parent to speak said she was “disappointed that we’re at almost a year since the (first discussion of the new school)” and she feels the district is “shooting itself in the foot” by not announcing a permanent location before the next round of open enrollment. She suggested there are many more potential attendees whose families are still awaiting for more information about the school’s future, “so why wait until the fall?”
McLaren went back to the “equity tool,” saying the board would have to ask itself to evaluate every decision as to whether it would mean “less choice” for people with fewer “resources.” If the STEM school were north of the Ship Canal, for example, ‘that would make it very difficult for more people to get to.” She added that they needed to take many other programs into account, such as Advanced Learning and Language Immersion, regarding “placing them equitably.”
McEvoy then seemed to commit fleetingly to the fact that the school will stay as a school, but, what if it is suddenly overenrolled? she said. “We want every family to have the type of education (they want).” She said they are worried about managing “demand and success,” and “providing seats at the right place and the right time.”
Another parent then told her flatly that “meetings like this” are causing “confusion” and “stress” as long as the district continues to not commit to keeping the school together. “We can talk from now until doomsday that there’s not any place big enough and we’re sitting in a building that’s big enough.”
McEvoy acknowledged “I think what parents are asking for is stability and predictability … and (though) commitments were made (by district officials who are no longer with the district), we need to honor those commitments.”
(The year since the decision was made to start the school has seen the district change superintendents as well as middle-managers, including Cathy Thompson, the former assistant superintendent who had led discussions regarding the plan, and Aurora Lora, the former executive director of West Seattle schools who also had a very visible role in the setup.)
McEvoy then reminded those in attendance that Boren is an “emergency and interim site” for the district and is intended to be kept that way. She said “we want a place that’s more permanent for you.”
The next parent to speak suggested the district was short on forethought – too many questions, too few answers. McEvoy went back to saying the district wasn’t sure there would be enough demand for this kind of school, what she then described as “this program – soon to be school, once we get you at wherever we get you at.”
A teacher said that he is aware money has been spent to expand capacity at Boren, which would mean there’s an option to stay here, or change the geozone of West Seattle to merge it into this school. But, he said, “when all of us met more than a year ago, we were told we were going to have a school, most likely Fairmount Park … promises were made and should be kept … you have an obligation as public servants to meet your obligations to the public … and I don’t think there’s a person in this room that believes you’re doing that yet.” He said there’s work “behind the partition walls” at Boren; McEvoy said that was mostly seismic work, and also related to ‘staging things’ for when Arbor Heights Elementary has to move out of its school for the BEX-funded construction program that’s coming up (assuming that levy passes; at that point she also said SPS is working wth the Legislature to see if there’s any way to move up Arbor Heights’ rebuild to be fewer than five years out).
The next parent asked for more clarity on “equity,” since the community would view it as allowing access to families that want their children to have access to “project-based learning as an option,” and she is concerned about how transportation would be affected. She noted that her daughter loves science, and “we left Pathfinder (K-8) to come here for that.” She also suggested that the crowding issues might be best affected by using the to-be-old Schmitz Park and to-be-reopened EC Hughes as new neighborhood schools.
“With open enrollment coming up, what is SPS going to say to parents?” the next person asked, saying it was difficult enough to make a decision last year, and now it sounds as if the district is being even more uncertain about its future.
McEvoy’s reply: “What we will be saying is that this is a school that will be here this year and next year, and that as we have conversations about where their permanent home wll be, those conversations will be happening this spring and next fall, and this community will be weighing in about where that will be.”
Specifically, how many incoming kindergarten classes will they allow? she was asked. “The budgeting process will be starting in February,” she said, at which time they will start looking at what schools will look like next year, with principals putting together their budget proposals in March. Brockman said that’s when they hope to have a “pretty good projection of how many students will be coming here” in the fall.
He then sought to reassure them that a permanent home was in their future: “You will be somewhere. This is STEM. You are successful. You will be somewhere. We are just not sure where yet,” said Brockman.
Pressed further – does that mean they’ll be an option school for sure? – he said that’s up to the board and they cannot make a commitment to that right now. “So this is going to stay a school?” one man pressed; McEvoy nodded, then qualified, “I have heard nothing from the school board that you would be anything but an option school … but even if you were a neighborhood school, the board usually votes for grandfathering (current students).” She again stressed that decisions would be made in November.
The talk then turned to capacity issues overall, at which time McEvoy noted that some have wondered if every elementary school should be a STEM school. A few applauded, a few said “no.”
But they were pressed yet again, what’s the plan for next year, how many classes will be added?
While not addressing that directly, McEvoy said she was hearing that the school wanted to stay together as a single cohort over the ensuing years, starting with those in the 4 kindergarten classes this year. A show of hands affirmed that.
One woman voiced regret that she didn’t feel she could try to discuss bigger-picture education-funding issues at the school because so many school-specific issues remained unresolved – “I’m mad at you guys,” she told the district reps, for leaving them in limbo this long.
“I really appreciate your honesty,” McLaren offered, segueing into a memory of her early days on the school board a year ago when this school was first under discussion: “We made promises that we didn’t know how we were going to keep, but we knew we would keep them somehow.” But, she said, she was “naive” and didn’t really understand what needed to go into the decisionmaking. “I know that sometimes those promises just don’t get kept … but I can tell you, this is a promise that’s going to be kept, that you will be together, that your STEM program is very wholeheartedly supported, and I’m sorry that we can’t tell you where that will be, but we simply have to have the big-picture conversation first, and as far as where we will have this program, assuming it is an option program, which is what everybody is thinking on the school board, I can’t tell you because there are a lot of variables …”
The district officials then were asked how much they were involving K-5 STEM’s principal Dr. Shannon McKinney in the process of making decisions such as, how much new enrollment will be involved this year before there’s a building decision. She would be involved, they were assured; Brockman said he agreed that two or three new classes might be more manageable.
A woman with a 1st grader and 4th grader asked about the district’s vision for where her older child will wind up going in middle school. Brockman said Dellino has been “working with the middle-school principals [Denny and Madison] about STEM coursework … (she) has been very passionate around the table when we talk about this … science and technology is really going to be a focus for all of our kids in the future.”
Dellino affirmed that she saw it as “very important” that the work at K-5 STEM continue. She said that the STEM principal has met with administrators and that a STEM task force will be started “so that the work you are doing now can be carried on at Madison/WSHS as well as at Denny/Chief Sealth – that’s the commitment you have in the West Seattle region.” Friday she will be meeting with the district’s new assistant sueprintendent o teaching and learning and science program manager “to start solidifying some of that work … that (it) can’t just stop at the elementary level.”
Alessi asked why it sounded as if no designated pathway into middle and high school was planned “like the international schools.” Dellino said, “I don’t think that decision has been made … but regardless of that decisoin I think it’s important as a district that we do a better job of science, technology, engineering and math – (and) as a nation.”
No dates are set for further discussions, yet, but if you have an opinion about K-5 STEM’s permanent home, the district says its firstname.lastname@example.org mailbox is where to send e-mail.
Earlier in the meeting:
-Before the discussion of the school’s future, a Schools First rep outlined the upcoming school-levies vote. She reminded everyone that the election is on February 12th and has two levies: First, renewing the operating levy: “You may have issues with the school district, but none of them are going to get better if you don’t pass this levy.” Second, the fourth cycle of the Building Excellence (BEX) levy, also a “renewal,” as she described it, but with “enhancements” including earthquake-safety measures for many buildings.
“It’s so important that people realize that ballots are getting mailed,” that you will get your ballot next week, she emphasized. “We’re not going to have a great city without strong schools, and we’re not going to have strong schools without investing.”
The text of the ballot measures, and arguments for/against, can be found here.